Ending Youth Solitary: Crime & Punishment, Not Crime & Torture

Hi, my name is Savion, and I'm from Madison, Wisconsin, a city tucked into the midwest, surrounded by lakes, marshes and prairies. Madison has earned a reputation for being a progressive bastion, one that sparked historic labor protests and a polarizing gubernatorial recall in 2011.

Indeed, Madison has received multiple "#1" accolades for livability, sustainability, walkability, and even bikeability. All of these are important features of a 21st century city. But for many Black youth in Madison, this idea of a progressive Madison is mythical.

Despite making up only 10% of the population ages 12-17, Black youth make up 60% of the detention-facility population; black youth are six times more likely to be arrested than white youth, compared to a 2:1 national ratio. The point here is that Madison isn't some national outlier regarding these statistics, but proof that even the most "progressive" of places are not immune from a criminal-justice system that is archaic, ineffective, and most of all, unjust. It prioritizes retribution over redemption, punishes poverty, and bars too many from reaching future success.

We at the Student Alliance for Prison Reform are attempting to change that. At college campuses across the country, our members are challenging their communities to live up to our values of redemption and opportunity. For example, our Executive Director Eva Shang has worked for two years through Harvard's adult-prison tutoring program, working with men on probation and parole and later, incarcerated women. Every week, students from Harvard work one-on-one to teach GED math, reading, and science.

Clearly, there is something each and everyone of us can do help fix this system. Every level of government -- federal, state, and municipal -- as well as the public and private sector, can do something to fix our broken criminal-justice system:

● Municipalities can review and change police protocol, how they collect petty fines, and identify crucial intervention points to prevent youth from getting tied up in the criminal-justice system -- ensuring all have access to a defense attorney, expanding the capacity of deferred-prosecution programs.

● States can review their mandatory-minimum sentencing and truth in sentencing laws, so that justice is determined on a case-by-case basis, not before a jury hears all the details.

● The federal government can reevaluate the so called War on Drugs and pass the REDEEM Act sponsored by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY).

● Cities and businesses can give youth a second chance by providing internships, on-the-job training, and requiring that contractors provide a certain number of internships.

● Universities and cities help youth get into school or a job by "banning the box," meaning
not requiring that applicants check a box if they have a criminal record. After Durham "banned the box," hires with a record increased seven-fold after four years.

One area of reform where we can make an immediate impact is by banning solitary confinement of our youth. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently said, "solitary confinement literally drives men mad." While corrections officials maintain they need solitary confinement to discipline and separate youth from adults when they misbehave, most solitary practices involve placing an inmate in a 7x9 cell for more than 22 hours a day. Solitary confinement bars youth from human contact, family communication, access to writing, reading, and limited, if any, educational materials. Moreover, solitary confinement can result in irreparable psychological illness. Youth placed in solitary confinement have increased risk of suicide and inhibited mental and physical development. Every day, youth prison as young as 13 are subject to such practices.

We at the student alliance for Prison Reform are teaming up with the ACLU to end youth solitary. This week (April 6th - April 11th), eight college campuses across the country will be educating our campuses and collecting signatures to petition the Attorney General to ban a practice that one of our members went through and described as "torturous and barbarous."

We all make mistakes, and when we do, we should focus on rehabilitation and redemption, not counterproductive mistreatment. Young people who make mistakes early in life deserve chances to be valued members of society, not stigmatized to a point that makes redemption nearly impossible. In communities across the country, people are joining together in a constellation of local movements to turn that into a reality. While local governments can make specific changes, what's needed is federal and state level action for a criminal-justice system that reflect our values.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.